Police in Ferguson, Missouri (photo: Jeff Roberson, Associated Press)
Ten California law enforcement agencies are among 148 nationwide that have been suspended from a Pentagon program for losing weapons and gear the military gave them.
The Department of Defense’s 1033 Program has been under scrutiny lately since the police show of strength in Ferguson, Missouri, after a black youth was shot to death by an officer. The department has doled out $4.3 million worth of military hardware since 1997, transforming local police into outfits resembling military units.
Most of the California suspensions occurred last year. NBC Bay Area reported last week that the Napa County Sheriff’s Office lost an M-16 assault rifle and was suspended on May 6. The San Mateo County Sheriff's Department didn’t know where two M16A1 rifles were and was suspended in October 2013.
Suspended agencies don’t have to return all their military equipment, but can’t order any new stuff. If an agency screws up bad enough, its status is downgraded to “terminated,” but that has only happened to seven of them.
Other suspended agencies listed were: California Highway Patrol-Sacramento, Arcadia Police Department, Huntington Beach Police Department, Maricopa Police Department, Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department, Stockton Police Department, Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department and Sutter County Sheriff’s Department.
But the Stockton police told Fusion it was suspended from the program in October after losing two M16s. The Sutter County Sheriff's office copped to losing an M14 and two M15s.
More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies have participated in the militarization of the police. Nationally, local agencies have received, at last count, 93,763 assault weapons, 180,718 magazines of ammunition, 44,900 night vision goggles, 533 aircraft, 432 armored mine-resistant vehicles and 435 other armored vehicles.
President Barack Obama said at a press conference 10 days ago that he thought it was time to examine the 1033 program because, “There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don't want those line blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.”
Of course, it was contrary to our traditions in 1997 when the military began handing out these goodies during the war on drugs and crime, and in 2001 when the the war on terrorism was the justification for giving podunk police forces tanks.
Although the recent focus on militarization of local police has focused on weapons, research indicates that adopting military tactics and training techniques could pose as serious a threat. A recent study published in Biology Letters says that marching in step and other synchronized movements inspire more aggressive behavior by making an adversary seem weaker.
Those techniques were on display in Ferguson when a small group of police would suddenly break out of tight formation, with assault weapons poised and shields raised, and dart across a neutral zone to snatch a protester from the crowd.
That kind of action might contribute to blurring what used to be a clear distinction between soldiers fighting an enemy on a foreign battlefield and peace officers serving their communities, and may constitute an even greater threat to public safety than some lost weapons in the long run.